‘Achebe was a cultural freedom fighter, did for culture what politicians did for political independence’
By Anote Ajeluorou
THE morning session of Day Two of the Chinua Achebe celebration morphed into the Mbari Series monthly lively literary event where the open conversation between the old and young writers which had as theme ‘Immortality of Creativity’. It had Prof. Razinat Mohammed and Dr. John Otu moderating the session. It was a full house made up of writers, teachers, students and literary enthusiasts, who had all come to pay respect to an ancestor of repute whose era ushered in a new dawn for Africa’s literary and cultural offerings. Prof. Emmanuel Dan Daura piloted the affairs of the entire programme to the end.
President of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Camilus Ukah, was particularly enthused by the presence of young people from various secondary schools and the University of Abuja, whose Vice Chancellor Prof. Abdulrasheed N’Allah and his two deputy vice chancellors were also in attendance. The future belongs to the young ones who must challenge themselves to also write their names in gold the way Achebe did as a mere 28 years’ old man when he wrote the immortal Things Fall Apart, Ukah told his audience. Ukah furtehr said it was the allure of words that transported him from the sciences into the world of literature where he is today as leader of the world’s biggest writers’ body complete with a resort the world had not seen before.
“This centre has been greatly sustained by the consistency of students,” Ukah said. “The event today is for the young ones. Achebe arrived with a bang, Things Fall Apart. And then he departed with a bang, There Was a Country. So the story is for the young people today is, to do something that counts. How young people can become immortal starts now.”
A linguist, teacher and exponent of Pidgin English, Prof. Francis Egbokhare, started by reading his translation of the first paragraph of Things Fall Apart to the delight of his audience. He went further to list the many categories of man and the things he does in each category, whether as homo sapiens, homo barbaric, and others. He said language is the soul of any community, adding that he had difficulty with his comprehension as a youngster until he read Achebe and things fell in place, because of Achebe’s unique language as it decolonised the English language for his young mind and he began to flow in it. Egbokhare said what that meant was that a child needs to get a grip of his mother tongue as precondition for grasping whatever concepts is thrown at him. He said Achebe will always live so long there’s language, adding, however, that the “tragedy is when a language of a people dies, creativity also dies.”
An expert in oral literature, N’Allah lent the concept of orality to the immortality of creativity when he dredged up some of the enduring creation mythologies as perfect examples of the immortality of creativity. He noted that for “any society, memory is related to creativity, and that the various creations myths are evidence of creativity which informs our own memory of our society. Creation stories are creative imaginations.”
- Newly inducted Fellow of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) and Vice Chancellor of University of Abuja, Prof. Abdulrasheed N’Allah (left) with Professors Femi Osofisan and Olu Obafemi at the event
He said from the Fulani single drop of milk creation story to the Oduduwa creation story of a rope descending from heaven to earth through which the mythical beings or deities landed on earth are all works of creative imagination that have remained immortal in the communities that gave birth to them. He held up the story of the mythical Bayajidda, a man who could sing for days on end without repeating same word, as an example of creativity in mythology, noting that the work of imagination is central to the wellbeing of any society. N’Allah capped his submission by singing a folksong that the audience applauded. The university administrator also foregrounded the immortality of Achebe’s creativity in the innumerable translations his works have enjoyed globally into other languages.
N’Allah stated that culture is unarguably Nigeria’s next gold that was waiting to be mined. From music to film to literature, the university don said the world was waiting for Nigeria to explode, and urged managers of the commonwealth to brace up for the challenge of managing and harnessing the vast cultural wealth embedded in the creativity coming of Nigeria.
For legendary Lindsay Barrett confessed to finding his way to Africa through the alluring works of Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Gabriel Okara, JP Clark in the 1960s. He was working in a radio station in London at the time when he encountered Nigerian writing and its writers. He made his way to Africa and has remained a Nigerian ever since.
“It was Nigerian literature that first made me think of making Nigeria home. I was working in Europe on radio and had the opportunity of interviewing JP Clark and Wole Soyinka; I later met (Gabriel) Okara,” he said. “Then I met Achebe shortly after the Nigerian Civil War. Although he was coming from the secession side, he was a complete Nigerian. One thing we often get wrong is that being critical about your society is not something to be ashamed of; it’s as important as law-making. Achebe’s book that I love most is Arrow of God, a beautiful description of the character of traditional society. He manipulated English to fit the way the Igbo man speaks it. The way many of us think is not in English, but our various mother tongues. Achebe was a beautiful lover of his home.”
For Prof. Olu Obafemi, the immortality of Achebe’s creativity is assured, saying that it was why there would always be a gathering to celebrate him the world over. Dr. John Otu said scant attention has been paid to Achebe’s critical works since he was just a creative writer but a fierce critic as well.
However, a young academic at the University of Abuja, Hakeem Alohunmata, raised a fundamental issue about how poetry is being consumed by young people, who he said tend towards spoke word poetry in stark contrast and aversion to written poetry. According to him, “Young people find it difficult to digest poetry. The trend now is towards live and spoken word poetry. The fact that written poetry is deep makes young people to tend towards spoken word poetry. This means written poetry is in danger of dying out. So we need to do something to reverse the trend.”
- The cultural icon, Chinua Achebe
THE second session started in earnest with Osofisan saying Achebe’s writing would appear to have happened long ago when there were not many writers. Osofisan expressed the creative debt African writers owe Achebe in his pioneering work in writing back to Europe.
According to Osofisan, “What we had was mainly oral just before the period of independence. He wrote to refute Europe’s view that Africa had no culture; he wrote to correct the European distortion of Africa found in Mr. Johnson by Joyce Carrey and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Achebe decided to write a different kind of book (Things Fall Apart) to the world, showing how established African societies were.
“The question for him then was, how do you create African characters using English? He had to create a different kind of English, used how Africans speak and infused it with English. African people speak using a lot of proverbs and he was very successful at it. African environment was evoked using a different kind of syntax. It became a bestseller all over the world. So he created African characters and environment that opened up the field for others.”
Professor of theatre studies at the University of Abuja, Mabel Evwierhoma, like others praised Achebe’s luminous, decolonising use of language that gave his special English to the colonised as bridge, which he capped with his Igbo proverb: proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten. She also stated that Achebe used his fiction to write back and effect a major revisionism on the false colonial dominant narrative that Africa neither had a language or culture to talk about. Evwierhoma said Umuofia became the symbol for the revisionism that Achebe did as the physical manifestation of the lived reality of an African society complete with its own vibrant culture and language.
Obafemi bemoaned the cruelty of the white man in ‘putting a knife to the things that held us together’, as Achebe puts in the novel, by annihilating African languages and cultures and supplanting them with his own.
“The first thing the white man did was to kill our language and culture by helping us to commit cultural genocide,” Obafemi lamented. “In school we were asked not to speak vernacular, our mother tongues (you were unished if you spoke one) – all helping to kill our languages. What Achebe did was to reinvigorate our languages and cultures.”
Journalist and culture communicator, Mr. Jahman Anikulapo, who joined virtually, described Achebe as a cultural freedom fighter and did for culture what politicians like Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Anthony Enaharo and Tafawa Balewa did on the political stage to gain independence for African countries. He said Achebe fought a cultural war against imperialism and succeeded in his quest. Anikulapo noted that Achebe’s writing expressed belief in Africa’s cultural consciousness and helped to reverse the ‘Been-to’ trend that was prevalent in the 1940s through the 1980s, about Africans who had gone to Europe to study and became ridiculously Europeanised and shunned everything African. But Achebe’s culturally charged writings, according to him, helped to reverse the ugly trend, and it saw to the death of Africa’s self-negating mentality otherwise known as the ‘Been-to’ phenomenon.